Iraq leaders intensify coalition talks amid growing foreign pressure

04-26-2005, 11h09

Iraq's largest political bloc said that it was intensifying coalition talks in a bid to agree a new government within 24 hours amid mounting international pressure more than 12 weeks after historic elections.

With US commanders voicing fears that the protracted deadlock is encouraging insurgent violence, Iraqi police announced they had detained more than 300 suspected militants in the so-called triangle of death south of the capital.

"Within the next 24 hours, it will be announced," Jawad Talib, spokesman for the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance, told AFP of the long-awaited new government line-up. "I think tomorrow everything will be settled."

Another Shiite politician said agreement might even be reached later Tuesday.

"If today, it will be this evening, or otherwise tomorrow morning," said Jawad al-Maliki, deputy leader of the Dawa party of prime minister designate Ibrahim al-Jafaari.

The new cabinet will likely include three deputy premierships, Maliki said.

Aides of Ahmed Chalabi, a secular politican once favoured by the Pentagon but who won election on the Shiite list, said he was likely to take one of the three posts, with responsibility for the key interior and defence ministries.

Negotiators said they had now abandoned efforts to persuade supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, another secular Shiite, to join the government.

"Allawi and his people are gone with the wind," said one politician close to the negotiations.

The decision came after Jafaari rejected demands by Allawi's list for five cabinet posts, including a deputy premiership.

The premier's supporters won just 40 seats in the 275-seat parliament against 146 seats for the Shiite bloc and 77 for the main Kurdish alliance.

Efforts are continuing to woo representatives of the Sunni Arab minority, which dominated Saddam Hussein's regime and all previous Iraqi governments but which largely boycotted January's vote.

Washington voiced concern that the delay in forming a government risking squandering the momentum created by the successful election.

"I think everybody believes that the Iraqi people now deserve a government, given that they took (a) risk to vote," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

"We've had opportunities to represent those views to a number of Iraqi leaders," she said. "And we're going to continue to say that it is important to keep momentum in the political process."

Iraqi police meanwhile hailed a major coup against Sunni Arab insurgents, announcing the arrest of 305 suspects, including 11 from other Arab countries.

"Among them, 85 admitted to carrying out terrorist attacks and 11 were foreigners from Arab countries, including Egyptians, Palestinians and Sudanese," Brigadier General Abdul Hanin al-Imara told AFP.

The detainees, some of whom were arrested in the town of Madain, scene of an alleged mass hostage-taking of Shiite residents earlier this month, included suspected members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Army of Ansar al-Sunna, the general said.

The militant group, which has released videotape of a number of executions of foreign hostages in the past, posted a statement on the internet Tuesday saying that it had kidnapped six Sudanese.

"Your mujahedeen brethren managed to ambush Sudanese drivers who transport goods, ammunition and weapons to US forces," said the statement, the authenticity of which could not be independently verified.

In other violence, one Iraqi civilian was killed and another wounded late Monday in a roadside bombing targeting a military convoy in Zuwiyah, 230 kilometers (145 miles) north of Baghdad, police captain Hazim Aswad said.

On Tuesday, a sniper killed the driver of an oil tanker in a joint Iraqi-US convoy near Farhatiyah some 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Baghdad, Lieutenant Colonel Hameed Ahmed said.

An Iraqi soldier was wounded in a mortar attack on a nearby US base, said Lieutenant Hussein Abbas.

A second soldier was wounded in a similar attack on the railway station in the nearby town of Dhuluiyah, police said.

Nearer the capital, seven members of the same family were wounded in a roadside bombing in the town of Dujail.

In Washington, commanders announced that a military inquiry had found that US soldiers who killed an Italian intelligence agent and wounded a hostage he was bringing to safety last month were "not culpable."

Italy has not accepted the US findings, a military official acknowledged, and the former hostage -- journalist Giuliana Sgrena -- conmdemned them as a "slap in the face".